It’s not every year we get a Jim Crow‐era race drama directed by the guy who made Dumb and Dumber To. In fact, it’s never happened — Peter Farrelly, who has been writing and directing gross‐out comedies with his brother Bobby since 1994, graced a TIFF stage for the first time ever this year with his feel‐good drama Green Book.
Based on a true story, the film follows Italian‐American nightclub bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who is hired by Jamaican‐American virtuoso pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as a driver/bodyguard/professional problem‐solver on his concert tour through the Deep South. It’s a generic and fairly predictable movie, but that doesn’t matter — everyone from the cast to the early reviewers to the uproarious TIFF audience seems to agree that there’s something special about this film, an undeniable charm which makes one feel like a heartless grouch for even noticing that, say, the cinematography is kind of bland.
One reason for the warm reaction, I think, is that beneath Green Book’s slick and conventional exterior is a nuanced look at the instability of our cultural boundaries. Don is a Black American who can’t recognize singers like Chubby Checker on the radio, while the vaguely racist Tony joyously sings along with these Black icons. Conversely, Tony’s Italian family is seen arguing about whether it was Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo who painted the “Sixteen Chapel.”
These characters resist easy categorization. Tony, so disdainful toward Black characters at the beginning of the film, suddenly finds himself feeling inadequate in the face of Don’s imposing intelligence. Don, so condescending toward Tony in their first interactions, finds himself relying more and more on the impressive social skills of a man he once thought to be vulgar and impolite.
The two characters constantly defy and exceed their cultural expectations of each other. Don says near the middle of the film, “You have a very narrow assessment of me, Tony.”
“Yeah, right?” replies Tony, tapping his forehead to indicate a big brain — “I’m good!”
The warmth and authenticity of Tony’s character was, for me, one of the most striking things about Green Book. I attribute this largely to Mortensen, who completely disappears into the role, and to the film’s script, which was written in part by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real‐life Tony.
Perhaps the character felt so real to me because he reminded me of my own family members. Though they’re Italians from Toronto, not the Bronx, and none of them had much to do with renowned Black musicians, the specificity and insight of certain moments in the film spoke truths about my loved ones, which I didn’t even know that I knew.
There is a scene in which Don and Tony stop at a roadside stand, and Tony wanders to a display of little jade stones for sale. He notices that one of the stones has fallen on the ground, now lying among rocks and dirt, and he pockets it.
Don’s bandmate sees the whole thing, and when Tony returns to their car, Don demands that he return the stone or pay for it. Playfully, Tony insists he didn’t steal anything — he just picked up a rock from the ground. It’s lucky, he says, so he wants to keep it.
Don simply can’t understand why Tony would want to steal something in this way. He tells Tony that if he wants it so badly, he should pay for it. Tony laughs — he doesn’t see why he should spend money on a rock.
As I watched this scene, suddenly, Tony became my late grandfather. I remembered when, years ago, he bought a new TV and as soon as he came home with it, before even opening the box, he phoned the manufacturer to tell them the remote control wasn’t working. They mailed him another one, and he had a spare remote.
I remembered that when he and my father were renovating our house some 15 years ago, they would often make trips to the hardware store to buy plywood, and my nonno would take great care to pile the wood on their cart in such a way that he could hide an extra two‐by‐four at the bottom and sneak it through the cash register without paying for it.
My non‐Italian father, much like Don, never understood this — they didn’t need the extra wood, and the money they saved by stealing was almost nothing, so why break the law? Why rip off the hardware store?
It was like a game for my nonno — the money didn’t matter, the wood didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was getting away with something a little mischievous. There was a joy in subverting the rules, in scamming just a little more than he was owed. It was an end in itself.
To see this mischievous part of my grandfather’s soul depicted so clearly onscreen made me appreciate my family in a way that few films have.
It’s a small moment in a film that deals with many issues, but it rang true for me in such an immediate way that everything that followed was an absolute delight to watch. It’s rare for a film to make such a pointed, beautiful observation about a certain type of person. There are more such moments in Green Book, some of which I’m sure flew over my head but will resonate with other viewers.
People tend to use ‘feel‐good movie’ as a pejorative, but this movie really does just make you feel good. It’s breezy and accessible, it has a lot of love for its characters, and it ultimately offers a message of hope in the face of prejudice. For some reason, that sort of thing isn’t so fashionable these days.
But the 2,000 TIFF viewers who gave Green Book a standing ovation were having too good of a time to care.